Which of Leicester City's Players Will Step Up?
In this month’s issue of When Saturday Comes magazine, I cast an eye over Leicester City’s financial prospects as the club homed in on promotion to the Premier League. In all, my article was perhaps a little kind on the Foxes as I gave the benefit of the doubt to the view that the untold riches on offer post-promotion would wipe out the serious ‘ifs’ that surround the club’s economy.
Those question marks are sizeable ones. A £34 million loss for the last recorded accounting period (2012-3), including staff costs of £26.1 million is far from small beer and if the television deal Leicester will enjoy from August makes those amounts look piddling at face value, the wages and transfer fees required to compete at the top level will almost certainly be sufficient to keep the club in the red for some time to come.
A significant January spending spree apart, Nigel Pearson has largely been forced to work with existing resources in 2013-4, allowing the Foxes to develop an impressively settled side and secure their Premier League berth with much breathing space to spare.
It’s been a protracted ode to common sense, with Pearson showing considerable tactical acumen and shrewdness as a coach. He’s turned round players who had previously flattered to deceive such as Danny Drinkwater and Jamie Vardy and got every last ounce of effort out of a squad which in a certain light, has an alarmingly lower league hue. Like the 2011-2 Champions Reading, their opponents in an entertaining encounter at the Madejski Stadium on Tuesday night, this Foxes team is something more than the sum of its parts.
Brian McDermott chose to stay loyal to the men who took the Royals up after their success and that proved to be the wrong decision with the team looking nowhere near good enough to properly compete from the word go. On first glance, Leicester will probably be regarded similarly — a 4-1 defeat against Brighton in their last match but one may have been anomalous but will no doubt have encouraged those who would argue that the playing staff needs medium term surgery.
So if we accept that the Foxes need new blood, in which positions does it need to be found? Which players might surprise us and raise to the challenge of taking on some of Europe’s best and which will find the going too difficult? I’ll take each of those who started Monday’s match in turn:
Goalkeeper: Kasper Schmeichel
A superb season for the Danish keeper continued at the Mad Stad after he denied Garath McCleary from a one-on-one just before half time, even if the referee declined to provide him with the credit by decreeing a goal kick. That said, he did occasionally struggle under the high ball and doesn’t quite have the presence of his famous father (no disgrace naturally).
There a school of thought that goalkeeper is the one position one can get away without tinkering with post-elevation although Reading might disagree following the hapless performances of Adam Federici in the opening weeks of last season. Hence, there will be a temptation to keep Schmeichel as a competent option. He is, however, out of contract and Italian newspaper Il Giorno has suggested that no less a suitor than AC Milan are interested. It’s likely, therefore, that he may be moving on.
Verdict: To be Replaced
Right Back: Ritchie De Laet
Once part of Manchester United’s joint venture with Belgian club Royal Antwerp, I had previously seen De Laet in action for Portsmouth a couple of years ago — he was unremarkable on the day. On Monday, however, he was excellent — attacking with intent and showing firmness in the tackle, looking very much the complete full back.
Left Back: Jeff Schlupp
It’s a given that the era’s best teams need good full backs and Schlupp was equally as impressive as De Laet on the night, only his lower centre of gravity distinguishing him from his fellow EU traveller. Schlupp is quick — very quick — and did really well against McCleary, himself very lively on the night. That the German born man started life at the club as a striker illustrates Pearson’s skill in lateral thinking and who is to say that he may not stand a chance of adding to his one Ghanaian cap come the World Cup in June? That he is getting the nod over Paul Konchesky is significant.
Centre Back: Marcin Wasilewski
Close to the end of Monday’s match, Hal Robson-Kanu attempted to negotiate his way past the imposing Pole only to end up flat on his face on the turf, the victim of nothing more than a standing of one’s ground. Wasilewski looks hard as nails and forms a redoubtable partnership with Wes Morgan, one perfectly attuned to the Championship. Pace, however, isn’t one of his attributes and at 33 and with no new contract on the table as yet, these are probably the former Anderlecht man’s last few weeks in Leicestershire. That’s no reflection on a wholehearted and committed member of a ‘dying breed’.
Verdict: To be replaced
Centre Back: Wes Morgan
As a former old-fashioned centre half himself, it’s no secret that Pearson loves a big lad and Wes Morgan sweeps up on the left hand side of the defensive pairing with only a touch more finesse than his Polish cohort – for Morgan also knows how to launch himself through the shoulder blades of a striker and enjoyed a mighty tussle with Pavel Pogrebnyak on the night.
It warms the cockles to see such a veteran of the Championship earn a promotion and Leicester fans must love the way he was picked up from their bitter rivals Nottingham Forest. In January, Morgan signed a new one and a half year deal and is hence guaranteed a squad place in the top tier at least. Whether he will keep his position in the team will depend on whom Pearson can bring in, with pace again a likely concern.
Verdict: To be replaced
Centre Midfield: Dean Hammond
In the absence of Matty James – a metronome all season alongside Danny Drinkwater – Dean Hammond enjoyed a start at the base of the midfield. He’s a player I have always liked ever since his initial spell at Brighton and he made a significant contribution to Southampton’s recovery in recent years. Here, he struggled a little with the youthful verve of Jordan Obita, playing in an unfamiliar central role. Hammond will likely be seeking new pastures in the summer but hasn’t let anyone down in his small number of appearances.
Verdict: To be replaced
Centre Midfield: Danny Drinkwater
Commonly regarded as the Foxes’ most important man in 2013-4 and yet there were murmurs when his name appeared on the team sheet at the commencement of hostilities in August. Here, his ability to recycle possession was strongly in evidence and it’s a more disciplined, less cocksure individual than the one who strutted around at the Mad Stad during a 3-1 defeat in Reading’s promotion year.
As the man through whom the ball is usually funnelled, Drinkwater is marvellously influential and recalls Bournemouth’s Matt Ritchie in his fundamental importance to a club’s cause. He also lashed in an equaliser for good measure and must be relishing the opportunity to make the step up.
Right Midfield: Riyad Mahrez
A January capture from Le Havre, Mahrez has amazingly been overlooked by Algeria at international level to date and his sublime skill recalls another man of the Maghreb, former QPR man Adel Taarabt. End product wasn’t quite there on the night but his ability on the overlap reminded one of the way the best team of our time, Bayern Munich utilise their wingers. Not that a comparison to Arjen Robben is appropriate yet of course — but Mahrez has speed and control and could be something of a secret weapon come August.
Left Midfield: Lloyd Dyer
Reading right back Chris Gunter always seems to do well against East Midlands clubs given his provenance as a Nottingham Forest player and he generally coped well with Dyer, an experienced and clever winger who nevertheless perhaps doesn’t have the dynamism of Anthony Knockaert, relegated to the bench on the night. Dyer did link well with his fellow midfielders and is also capable of playing on the opposite flank — so he’s a useful option to have but not perhaps one that will stand out in EPL climes.
Verdict: To be replaced
Striker: David Nugent
A simply horrible player to play against ever since his Preston days. I almost expected fellow snarler Paul McKenna to be exorcised from memory behind him as Nugent niggled his way into the bad books of Alex Pearce and a decidedly ring rusty Sean Morrison. Nugent has never set the world alight in the upper division and he was a disappointment at Portsmouth before a decent enough spell at Burnley. In the Championship he is fearsome though — and not just from the penalty spot. He’ll be kept as an option but City may require a more regular supplier of goals next season out.
Verdict: To be replaced
Striker: Jamie Vardy
…and those goals might well come from such quarters. Vardy has admitted that he was almost ready to give up the game after a difficult first year at the King Power Stadium but has been utterly smashing since, scoring 16 times and frightening many a Championship defence with his pace. Having finally negotiated the big step up from Fleetwood with aplomb and shown a real willingness to learn, who is to say he won’t do the business next year.?
Of those who didn’t start the match against Reading, Knockaert is the wild card most likely to find favour in Pearson’s plans in the Premier league while one might expect Liam Moore to challenge strongly to be first choice at centre back when he is a year older and more experienced. The aforementioned James should also figure heavily in the manager’s mind.
Andy King by contrast has struggled to break into the team and Championship suitors will be circling (perhaps including Monday’s hosts as he is a local boy?) and Chris Wood will not have enjoyed such regular acquaintance with the substitutes’ bench. Both could well leave the city along with a host of other out of contract players.
Leicester need to avoid Reading’s mistake in failing to strengthen sufficiently and perhaps need to view Hull as a model. The conundrum is the financial situation which still isn’t healthy and Pearson for one can be counted on to keep a lid on any desire to speculate wildly. Whether the club’s owners will agree is a question left to be answered.